Free Press Journal

In India, homosexuality is not a taboo but a tradition


Sumit Paul proves how ancient India never cast aspersions on homosexuality and lesbianism

“I wonder, why the collective Indian psyche looks down upon homosexuality, whereas its (India’s) mythological traditions and spiritual consciousness have always accommodated it if not eulogised. Your Indian mythology is full of non-glorified homosexual instances not for any titillation purpose but to describe with a definite sense of nonchalance that this very phenomenon was never considered an aberration or abnormality, much less a taboo. Homosexuality is rooted in the framework of Indian mythology and is a part and parcel of oriental spiritual consciousness,” wrote the Mexican Nobel laureate in literature and its ambassador to India, Octavio Paz to his friend and PM Jawaharlal Nehru.

It’s heartening news that the Supreme Court has decriminalised homosexuality in India. The mythological traditions of India never cast aspersions on homosexuality and lesbianism. One can see V S Sukhtankar and S K Belvalkar’s translation of Vedvyas’ Mahabharata at Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona and find the passages which clearly state that Bhishma’s half-brother Vichitraveerya was a homosexual and his mother Satyavati had the knowledge of her son being gay. Seventeen major characters of Mahabharata were homosexual. Shakuni, Nakul and Ashvatthama didn’t conceal their sexual predilections. Ditto Karna’s second wife Supriya, who preferred the ‘company’ of women more than that of man/men. Karna was aware of it and made no bones about it.

English Vedantist Sir Christopher Isherwood, who himself was gay, found homosexuality and bisexuality to be the core elements of Vedic philosophy. This may disconcert the prudery of many today but the fact remains that homosexuality was never an issue in ancient or Vedic India. The erudite female philosophers like Gargi, Maitrayee and Lopamudra were apparently lesbians who gravitated more naturally towards women for their intellectual and physical needs.

Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s ‘Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History’ (2001) vividly describes the homosexual tendencies, strains and streaks among Hinduism’s favourite deities. Our highly advanced and healthy sexual understanding was obscured by Islam’s invasion, followed by Christian morality and finally by the Victorian Grundyism.

Sex itself was not a taboo and its offshoots — homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality were acceptable behavioural patterns. The ancient masters of sexuality like Koka Pandit, Gonikaputra, Vatsyayan, and Srivatsal among others wrote about homosexuality as a very normal sexual behaviour and response. Nowhere did they castigate homosexuals and lesbians the way many in modern India do.

Rahul Sankrityayan, the Indian Marco Polo and an erudite scholar, collected instances of homosexuality and lesbianism in ancient India in his Hindi book: Volga se Ganga (From Volga to Ganga). Readers will be astonished to note innumerable references and instances of same sex encounters and there’s nothing apocryphal about that. In one of the chapters, named, ‘Samlingi sambandh aur tab ka Bharat’ (Homosexual relations and the then India), Rahul writes, ‘All kings had seraglios where young boys were kept for this purpose. They were called ‘Anuresh’ (Sanskrit word for a catamite in English). Queens also had their harems in which young lasses were kept for lesbian love-making (page 23, para 3). Masses also indulged in homosexual affairs and activities sans any qualms and scruples. Those boys and girls in harems were called ‘Devashtrish’ (Divine blessings in Sanskrit, page 31) (Courtesy, Calcutta University Library and Darjeeling Archives).

Two imposed foreign religions and cultures confounded the eastern idea of sexuality and criminalised certain sexual practices as immoral and unethical. We forget that (heterosexual) sodomy (which was punishable under section 377) was and is still integral to Tantra of Hinduism and Vajrayan of Buddhism. In fact, Tantra advocates certain sexual practices that were criminal under the now-defunct section 377.

We live in a hypocritical society with no real idea of our erotic spiritual consciousness, rich sexual heritage and mythological traditions. The false and misconstrued religious morality and incessant foreign invasions clouded our erstwhile liberal and all-encompassing attitude towards sex and sexual practices.

We became unaware of our own mores and latitudinarian perceptions and practices that were so advanced at that time! This is really a tragic irony. It is, therefore, indeed great news that section 377 has been dispensed with by the honourable Supreme Court to guard its citizens’ bedroom privacy, preferences and predilections.